Theater Review: ‘What Rhymes With America’

By Diana Barth Created: December 17, 2012 Last Updated: December 17, 2012
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Sheryl (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is an actor who plays Lady Macbeth in Melissa James Gibson’s new play, “What Rhymes With America.” (Kevin Thomas Garcia)

Sheryl (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is an actor who plays Lady Macbeth in Melissa James Gibson’s new play, “What Rhymes With America.” (Kevin Thomas Garcia)

NEW YORK—Most plays, that is, traditional plays, plays written in the old way—with recognizable characters and plots—seek to achieve clarity. Take Shakespeare, Williams, Odets—they want you to understand what is going on and why.

I cannot fault Melissa James Gibson in her new play, What Rhymes with America, in its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, for lacking recognizable characters. I simply don’t understand what a couple of them are doing in her play. Nor do I understand why she takes such a circuitous journey in getting to the point of her play.

At the play’s beginning, father Hank (Chris Bauer) is speaking to daughter Marlene (Aimee Carrero) through a locked door, which she refuses to open. Their conversation concerns his wife, who has separated from Hank, and his wanting to get back together with her.

Under orders from her (unseen) mother, Marlene refuses to cooperate. (The locked door is apparently a tangible symbol for the “estrangement” mentioned in the play’s press release.)

Hank’s life is falling apart. He doesn’t have money to pay his wife, Gina, the money he owes her. An economist, he is desperately in need of funding. Marlene does volunteer work at a hospital—this point later having bearing on the play’s events.

For some reason (not grasped by me), Hank has scenes with an actress and singer, Sheryl (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), discussing life and opera. Sheryl makes it very clear that she is an “actor” not actress, as the latter term is now passé. The two can’t figure out what to do about “seamstress,” but finally resort to “tailor.”

Sheryl recites scenes from the Scottish play (I dare not say its name). Randolph’s Lady Macbeth is quite effective, but is its inclusion necessary?

Late in the play Sheryl recounts that during a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in which she is a lowly “super,” she runs to center stage, grabs the ring, and races out into the night. I can actually identify with that. I have sometimes experienced similar desires as I sit and watch certain performances. Further, the incident appears to connect with the press material that identifies Gibson’s play as regarding “the partially examined life.”

What Rhymes With America

Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or visit
Running Time: 2 hours
Closes: Dec. 30

Later, Hank meets Lydia (Seana Kofoed), whose father is dying in the hospital room where Marlene is working. Hank and Lydia attempt a relationship, which soon aborts itself.

As directed by Daniel Aukin (his most recent work the charming 4000 Miles at Lincoln Center), the actors are competent, with Randolph arguably deserving highest honors.

Playwright Gibson, making her Atlantic Theater Company debut here, has won various playwriting awards, is also a screenwriter, and is currently a staff writer on the new FX show, The Americans.

Diana Barth writes and publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information:

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